In an interview published by The Guardian, Broadway luminary and pioneer Hal Prince encouraged the theatrical world to start taking more risks. He says that Broadway should be a dangerous place, and the spiraling costs of shows coupled with producers hesitant to take risks leads to an abundance of safe shows that rely on star power to sell them, rather than the show itself (an important exception to this, Prince points out, is Hamilton).
“Audiences are better than that. They’re quite willing to go where they’ve never been before. But producers are not willing to take them there. That’s because of the cost. It becomes too much of a business and too little of an artform. We are deluged with limited-engagement productions, usually revivals, featuring huge stars. They guarantee paying back their investments but with limited profit potential. And revivals, though important historically, are not new work. They do not represent the now or the future of the theatre.”
We turned to our BroadwayHD community to get their take on it. Names have been redacted, but we wanted to preserve their comments and thoughts.
One fan doesn’t see the need for theater to be entirely risky and groundbreaking. “I personally think it should be a mix of both,” he said. “Yeah, we need art that shakes us up and reexamine...but at the same time, for my money, I need to kick back with something light every now and again.”
This is a dilemma that permeates every entertainment industry. When it comes to releasing movies, a major studio can’t get by on just releasing dark heavy films. They also can’t get credibility by releasing fluffy light films. Television broadcast networks are the same way. HBO is as successful as it is because of their full catalogue, from the bloody and critically lauded Game of Thrones to the hilarious and beloved Silicon Valley. Even in the music industry, an album needs to include ballads, uptempos, love songs, etc. Every entertainment media needs to be versatile to connect to an audience’s mood.
But that doesn’t mean something light needs to be something safe. I think of shows like Urinetown or Book of Mormon, where the content is fluffy and silly but the show itself takes risks in many ways. One of my favorite shows is The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is heartwarming and light, but also one of the most inventive shows to hit Broadway in the last 20 years. It’s a risk every night to put different audience members onstage and have them be characters in the show.
Another questions the talent pool on Broadway. “I realized this year that I keep seeing revivals of shows I loved and shows I grew up with, because there's nothing new out there that strikes me,” she said. “There are no powerful scores, or overtures that pull you in from the second they strike the first note. The talent pool seems to have drained.”
While we believe the talent pool is as full as ever, it’s a question of if the overture-driven score-based musical has gone the wayside. What was the last new musical to feature an overture to kick off either act? It seems that the DNA of the musical has evolved to where it’s a series of songs that are interconnected, but not necessarily with the foundational score that punctuates classic musicals.
This evolution is really what it’s about. It’s not a bad thing that the musical has evolved – evolution is good. It was risky to be the first composer who said “Nah, I don’t want an overture.” And it’s a risk that has paid off, with critical successes like Waitress and Dear Evan Hansen. It allows for individual songs to become chart toppers. What’s ironic is that this is a call back to the early days of musicals, when songs from the shows became top 40 hits. Now, shows and musicals are back to topping the charts. Pop artists are covering major songs from the shows, or releasing them as singles. For example, Owl City did an electronic dance cover of Waving Through a Window, while Sara Bareilles released She Used to Be Mine as a single.
Shows are evolving. Their formats are changing. Will this lead to more risks? We can only hope so. Pushing the envelope is the only way that art will continue to evolve and grow.
For some shows that push boundaries, check out:
•The Toxic Avenger: The Musical for a silly romantic horror romp like you’ve never seen
•Ernest Shackleton Loves Me for an ingenious cutting edge multimedia experience
•Indecent for a show that pushes the concept of decency and censorship in a groundbreaking way
All of these shows, and more, are streaming on BroadwayHD today!